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Employees Protest Conditions, Move to Unionize, at Independent Photo Retailer B&H

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B&H workers protest outside the photo and video store in Manhattan (all photos courtesy Rosanna Rodríguez-Aran)

Workers for B&H Photo Video, the largest independent photo and video product store in the United States, are moving to unionize, demanding that the New York–based institution improve dangerous working conditions and cease acts of discrimination in its Brooklyn warehouses.

On Tuesday, a United Steelworkers union member filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to organize within 30 days a vote among B&H workers that will determine if they want representation by the industrial union giant; over 80 percent signed cards saying they do, the New York Times reported. The motion follows a large demonstration that occurred last Sunday, when nearly 200 workers and their families congregated outside B&H’s midtown store. Members of the United Steelworkers union also delivered a letter addressed to owner Herman Schreiber and Chief Executive Officer and President Sam Goldstein. Signed by workers from B&H warehouses in Bushwick and Brooklyn Navy Yard, the letter (which Hyperallergic obtained but remains confidential for legal reasons) outlines seven ongoing discriminatory practices as well as 16 conditions that compromise workers’ health and safety, calling for an immediate end to them. The campaign has been organized with Laundry Workers’ Center, a workers rights training group that started hearing testimonies from B&H employees and informing them of labor laws last September.

“At B&H, all my coworkers are tired of the abuse. Because of this, we’ve decided to organize,” one worker says in a video published yesterday. “Laundry Workers’ Center has trained us. The’ve taught us our rights, and how to defend ourselves. We’re fighting for a better future, for better working conditions and the rest of the demands we have.”

“Allegations in the public are just that, allegations,” Henry Posner, B&H’s director of corporate communications, told Hyperallergic via email. “Employee satisfaction is as important to us, and as vital to us, as customer satisfaction. The two are intertwined. Our commitment to our employees runs as deep as it does to our loyal customer base.”

One chief concern among the B&H employees is that the company does not provide adequate training for them to handle equipment such as forklifts, powerjacks, and pickers, a grave oversight that’s resulted in numerous injuries.

“The managers just say, you are going to have to use this machine, and [workers] have to learn by themselves,” Rosanna Rodríguez-Aran, co-director of Laundry Workers’ Center told Hyperallergic. “And they put a lot of pressure on the workers to work faster. That’s something that’s becoming worse, because if you don’t have training on how to use the machine and you have to work fast … that can end in something bad.” Worker Oscar Orellana is still living today with the consequences of improper training: as Al Jazeera America reported, he fell from an eight-foot-high pallet last year, subsequently injuring his upper spine. B&H refused to take responsibility for the incident, and Orellana’s supervisors did not shift his duties to involve less heavy lifting, as his doctor had ordered.

Employees also report working in incredibly dusty and dirty spaces that expose them to asbestos, benzene, and fiberglass, which cause chronic nosebleeds as well as skin  and eye irritations.

“We have some workers that are bleeding three times a week because they have respiratory conditions,” Rodríguez-Aran said. “They have red eyes, headaches. They are suffering a lot of muscle pain because they have to carry heavy things without support. Some of the workers are suffering skin rashes.” Many have also complained of dizziness and dehydration because of the poor air quality; according to the letter, an air-conditioner was installed in the Bushwick warehouse only at the end of this summer.

One of the most life-threatening events occurred this past September, when a fire broke out next to the Navy Yard warehouse, causing heavy smoke to seep into the building. Rather than heading towards emergency exits, workers had to form a line to leave through the main entrance, waiting for approved passage through metal detectors before they were allowed to go. Meanwhile, a number of firetrucks and helicopters had already arrived to quench the blaze, according to Rodríguez-Aran, who also noted that B&H has not since improved its fire safety policies.

“The workers do not know where the emergency exits go,” she said. “Some people are saying that behind those doors there’s another door, but it’s locked. Which means that if the workers are going through there … somebody can be hurt, or somebody can die.”

Day-to-day matters are allegedly just as problematic. Although employees are technically supposed to work from 7am to 6pm, they say no one clocks in their hours, and instead they’re often made to stay as late as 11pm. Employees also claim to bear verbal abuse from managers specifically because they are Latino, and that instructions or work-related documents are provided in only English, leaving many unable to comprehend.

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B&H warehouse workers demonstrate outside the photo store on October 11

“I know that the workers have been suffering from these conditions for many years,” Rodríguez-Aran said. “We have people that have been there for six and more years, and they say that they have been treated in this way.” She noted that although many have told the human resources department about their abuses, such charges had not led to long-term change.

In response to the mounting number of allegations, B&H provided the following statement to Hyperallergic:

We have committed, devoted, hard-working employees who earn above-average industry salaries, generous benefit packages, 17 paid days off annually, and 3-weeks paid vacation time. Our average employee tenure in our distribution and fulfillment center is more than five years. We provide terrific benefits, highly competitive wages and a safe, friendly environment.

As to the matter of union representation, our employees have the right to seek such representation. It is a decision to be made by our employees, and there is a process underway to resolve that question.

The October 11 demonstration marks the largest public protest by workers against B&H, but the megastore is no stranger to accusations of labor violations: in 2007 it faced a discrimination lawsuit filed by its Hispanic employees, who condemned the store for paying them lower wages compared to their Jewish coworkers. Even though B&H agreed then to undergo regular oversight by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and settled the claim for $4.3 million, it faced another, similar lawsuit in 2011.

This time, if lawyers representing the workers do not receive “a favorable reply” by October 20, they will move to file 180 individual claims with the EEOC, the Times reported.

“For now we are waiting, but there are many things going on in terms of social media,” Rodríguez-Aran said. “Of course if the company does not answer, the workers are going to take action. It’s something that we’ll have to strategize.”

Update: Workers in B&H’s warehouses subsequently claimed that representatives from the company threatened mass firings of workers trying to unionize. See Hyperallergic’s coverage here.

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